A popular image of a video gamer involves one or two people staring at a screen with nothing but the noise of the game or the occasional burst of human emotion interrupting the silence. But for Ben Samuel, new assistant professor of computer science at the University of New Orleans, video games are far from that semi-lonely pursuit. They are instead a vibrant avenue to involve human interaction and engage the theatrical.
“There’s a lot of valuable, powerful interdisciplinary work that needs to happen across the divide between science and art,” said Samuel, one of six new faculty members to join UNO this fall. “Video games, in particular, are an inherently artistic medium.”
Lest that sounds like academic-speak, relax and know that it is completely genuine. Samuel himself is the embodiment of this merger. He’s a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild who has also created award-winning games that challenge traditional definitions of what a video game should be.
His acting in the 2012 Hulu mockumentary “Battleground” prompted The New York Times to call him “the best reason so far to watch” the comedic ensemble show. And one of his gaming co-creations, “Bad News,” combines improvisational theatre and computer simulation, a project that has won multiple awards, including the prestigious IndieCade 2016 Audience Choice award.
Samuel has loved gaming since he was three and had his stage debut at eight in a school play. His passion for both fields was so intense that when it came time to decide which area to study, he just didn’t decide. He took his father’s “follow your bliss” advice and did both.
He double majored in computer science and theatre arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And just when he decided to seek a graduate certificate degree in theatre arts, he was drawn back to computer science, thanks to the exciting work of UC Santa Cruz professor Michael Mateas, who was preaching the gospel of arts-integrated computer science through a course on interactive storytelling.
“It changed my life,” Samuel said. “Never before had I even encountered the opportunity to combine these two passions in my life in just this way. And never before had I had a mentor or teacher or role model like this one … It made me completely reevaluate my computer science background and inspired me to think about all these new ways that I could apply it.”
Samuel went on to get a master’s and Ph.D. in computer science at UC Santa Cruz, finishing his graduate work last year. He said he was attracted to UNO and New Orleans because of its vibrant arts and burgeoning game development communities. He hopes to integrate his life into the local improvisational theatre scene as well as connect with other gaming enthusiasts while becoming the kind of mentor that he has benefitted from himself.
Samuel said he intends his classroom to be a place where students can at once feel confident in their abilities while being challenged by the hard work of creative programming without feeling ashamed by what they don’t know when the work gets difficult. And he’s already on the lookout for collaborative opportunities between the humanities and computer science.
As part of UNO’s Department of Computer Science, Samuel joins Stephen Ware, assistant professor of computer science, whose work in the area of game development at UNO launched the Narrative Intelligence Lab and has resulted in a number of awards. Samuel said he’s excited about the opportunities that exist to build on the foundation Ware has created. Samuel sees UNO’s computer science department as a place, “where games are viewed as this very valuable, very exciting application of computer science that is not only this amazing lens through which to learn computer science skills, but also a lens of self-expression, of interactivity, and of art.”
“I have tried to bridge that gap as much as I can in my own life,” he said, “and I am excited to be a teacher to try and help other students bridge that gap.”
Also joining UNO’s faculty this fall are Tracey Knaus, Matthew Scalco and Christopher Harshaw, assistant professors in the Department of Psychology; David Podgorski, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Christopher Belser, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Counseling and Foundations. All bring with them innovative research that seeks to solve real-world problems that are affecting communities and lives.
Christopher Belser, assistant professor of education leadership, counseling and foundations
Christopher Belser joins UNO from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where he recently received his doctorate in counselor education and supervision.
Belser’s dissertation looked at one of the most confounding topics in American education today: what factors data say can predict whether students who pursue studies in so-called “STEM fields”—science technology, engineering and mathematics—remain in those fields through throughout their college careers.
He is a former school counselor at Woodlawn Middle School and Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter Middle School, both in Baton Rouge, who went on to pursue his Ph.D. at UCF, where he worked as a lead graduate research and teaching associate in the university’s COMPASS program, a National Science Foundation funded project focused on recruiting and retaining students in STEM fields.
Belser’s research interests also include career development across one’s lifespan, professional school counseling, and child and adolescent counseling. Besides his doctorate, he holds an M.Ed. in school counseling and a B.A. in English: Secondary Education, both from LSU.
Christopher Harshaw, assistant professor of psychology
Christopher Harshaw is trying to piece together one of the greatest puzzles in psychology: Why do certain psychological disorders co-occur with certain bodily dysfunction.
For example, he says, why does depression so often involve disturbed sleep and eating? Why do schizophrenics frequently suffer from unquenchable thirst? Why do people with autism spectrum disorders often have gastrointestinal issues and problems regulating their body temperatures?
“My research aims to address these sorts of questions from a developmental psychobiological-system standpoint,” he says.
Harshaw, who joins UNO from Indiana University, Bloomington, researches the role bodily signals—and one’s perception of those signals—play in normal cognition and in psychopathy. His current focus is on somatic signals and their role in social cognition and behavior, especially in autism spectrum disorders.
Harshaw said he found UNO’s Department of Psychology’s focus on biopsychology and developmental psychology to offer a good fit for his work. A former psychology and philosophy double-major, Harshaw holds two bachelor’s degrees and a doctorate from Florida International University, a public research university in Miami, and said he was excited to work at a similarly diverse public university in New Orleans.
“I’m excited about meeting and interacting with students,” he said, “as well as sejtting up my laboratory to continue to conduct studies focused on better understanding autism spectrum disorders.”
Tracey Knaus, assistant professor of psychology
Tracey Knaus strives to help children with autism communicate more easily.
Knaus, who comes to UNO from LSU Health Sciences Center’s Brain & Behavior Program, researches neurodevelopmental disorders, the relationship between brain anatomy, function and behavior, and language and communication functions. Using neuroimaging, she seeks to examine the brain anatomy, activity and functions in typically developing children as well as those with autism spectrum disorder.
“With these studies,” she said, “my main focus has been on language abilities and development in the hopes of better understanding the neural mechanisms of language and communication, allowing for the development of more targeted interventions of children with autism disorder with language deficits.”
Knaus holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Tulane University and a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience from Texas Christian University. Her work in the area of autism research goes back more than 13 years and includes working with families of autistic children at The Autism Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.
David Podgorski, assistant professor of chemistry
David Podgorski isn’t satisfied with the current state of water testing analysis.
A Louisiana Sea Grant Discovery, Integration and Application Fellow who comes to UNO from a research faculty position at Florida State University’s Magnetic Field Laboratory, Podgorski’s research is focused on improving the means by which scientists and regulatory agencies monitor and detect contaminants in water resources.
“Pollutants that enter the environment immediately begin to transform through biological and photochemical processes,” he says. “Standard methods of analysis utilized by federal and state regulatory agencies are unable to detect these transformation products. The result is that heavily contaminated sites are deemed to be uncontaminated.”
Through Podgorski’s work, he seeks to improve understanding of the toxicity, transformation and movement of these compounds in the environment so that policy makers and regulatory agencies can make informed decisions regarding drinking water supplies and ecosystems.
Podgorski holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC, where in 2013 he was named “Young Alumnus of the Year,” and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Florida State University.
Matthew Scalco, assistant professor of psychology
A New Orleans native and UNO alumnus, Matthew Scalco returns to campus 11 years after studying philosophy here. He brings with him three degrees—a bachelor’s in psychology from University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from State University of New York at Buffalo.
Scalco’s central research interest relates to substance use disorders, including how and why they develop in people from late childhood through adulthood, what factors contribute to increases in substance use, and the origin of adolescent substance use.
In addition to his programmatic research, he has collaborated with other researchers as a statistical and methodological consultant on work examining personality disorders, severe mental illness, trauma and substance abuse in college students, social withdrawal and emotional eating among adolescents.
“As a pragmatist philosophically,” he said, “I thrive to make nomothetic research questions relevant to the real world. I am highly motivated to find innovative and creative ways of applying conclusions from research to treatment and prevention of adolescent and adult psychopathology, especially substance abuse disorders.”